The Kimchi of Place

Cynthia Nikitin

I just returned from my 5th Placemaking Campaign trip to South Korea in the past 2 ½ years.

Korea is well on the way to becoming one of the world’s hottest Placemaking centers- and PPS has been stoking the fire.  Since 2008, PPS has been working to catalyze community-led public space improvements and partnering with organizations all over South Korea, including the Hope Institute, a civic research NGO- an organization with whom PPS has a formal partnership, Seoul National University, and the Asia Creative Academy/Community Design Lab.

A Placemaking revolution is afoot in Seoul, Korea

Everything in Korea is changing quickly: what struck me the most about my visit this time is how fast and deeply ingrained the fast food culture has become in that country! McDonalds, all night Starbucks and Duncan Donuts seem to be a bigger threat  to century’s old Korean traditions than the more recent destruction of traditional Hanok houses and markets by sleek big box shopping malls. 

If cultures are defined by their food, what does it mean when “all day brunch” cafes are easy to find but restaurants that serve traditional Korean breakfasts are no more?

Waffles and coffee!

And what about public spaces in Seoul?

The reason Placemaking has only recently caught on as a concept and a planning tool in Korea is that traditionally public space – at least in the Western sense of the concept – is not really indigenous  but then again, neither is coffee (which evidently was introduced by a German woman about  100 years ago who took hers with  lots of sugar.   The barristas working in cafes in Samcheong-dong  are a decided improvement).  Shops fronted the street; houses were arranged around a central courtyard and were very much private space. 

Many of the public spaces that one encounters in Seoul today are monumental, formal, expensive and not meant to have any fun in whatsoever.

Fun is decidedly not part of the Korean government’s  numerous interventions undertaken under its mantle of the World  Design Capital 2010.  They are places to move through , look and marvel at, but not to use, linger in or gather.

Cheonggyecheon stream

The world famous Cheonggyecheon stream (a highway converted to a man-made stream) and the new Sejongro Boulevard which leads to Gyeongbokgung Palace are testimony to that.

Today's Sejongro Boulevard in Seoul via flickr user Snap Man

Piloting PPS’ Place Performance Evaluation Game in Korean

The PlaceGame in Korean

Marronnier Park, (named for the large Chestnut tree at its center) and the streets around it used to be closed for concerts, celebrations and events programmed by and for university students.

But it could perform a lot better as a public space: the street that abuts it, Hyehwa-dong, is 8 lanes wide and cuts the park off from the rest of the University District.

During my visit I spent a half a day with about 40 Seoul National University students and colleagues from the Hope Institute piloting the Korean version of our Place Performance Evaluation Game in Marronnier Park.  We have SNU student and former PPS intern Yunjung Yun to thank for her translation).

Marronnier Park

Within the space of 4 hours, the SNU graduate students came up with fantastic ideas for how to redesign, program, activate and open up this square so that it served the neighborhood, the hospital staff and patients located across the street,  and provided a venue for the cultural institutions that ringed the park to strut their stuff.

We piloted the PlaceGame in Korean

The Asia Creative Academy also is engaged in evaluating, appreciating, preserve and designing enhanced elements of the public realm that still define  and shape urban life in Korea’s cities.

I spent the weekend in Seong Buk Dong  with a half dozen designers from the ACA working with them to apply the Power of 10 to revitalizing  the gateway area of a small village within this borough located on the edge Seoul (photos here called Seong Buk Dong) and spoke at a Community Design Forum sponsored by the Borough about the large impact making many improvements at a small scale can have. As it turned out, Mayor Kim is a huge fan of PPS.

Dr. Zoh Kyung-Jin

Placemaking principles and ideas seem to be resonating with Koreans at this point in time.

Not only with  University Students and their professors (Dr. Zoh Kyung-Jin and Dr. Lee Insung rock the house) but even government funded  institutes like the Architecture and Urban Research Institute, the Asia Creative Academy and the Korean Research Institute for Human Settlements all seem to respect and value  the place based, people driven philosophy of public design  even as provincial, city and federal governments completely eschew it and choose to focus instead of delivering big budget, high profile projects in a top-down completely autocratic manner (like these developments in Anyang).

This is Anyang city where the high rises are marching unchecked up the mountain side

So given these two seemingly divergent diametrically opposed tracks – Starbucks, sugar, and wide streets vs. local coffee, kimchi and reclaimed public spaces, what is the future?

I think a Placemaking revolution is afoot in Korea.

As I mentioned to the US Ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, whom I met entering a Jazz club as I was leaving, the future is a unified North and South Korea, integrated through a culture of place,  food, and incremental changes to the public realm – lighter quicker cheaper, low cost, high tech (was the Android invented in Korea?) lead by young people and focused on maximizing local assets and created through widespread public engagement.

Ambassador Stephens and Me

“Does Korea do public engagement?” she asked me.  “They will soon,” I assured her.  I found the Ambassador to be very warm and friendly even though she had not received the emails I have been sending her asking to meet as well as the photos of myself I had shared with her staff which confirmed that the Ambassador and I look somewhat alike.  My mom thinks so too.  I always suspected that the reason Koreans seem to like me is because I resemble our ambassador (at least to folks unused to seeing American women).

But maybe it’s more than that.  Maybe it’s the ideas I have been talking about in dozens of cities and institutions around the City that are resonating with the Soul of Seoul…and beyond.

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